Story: Memorials and monuments

Page 2. Memorials to the New Zealand wars

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Few memorials

Consistent with colonial New Zealand’s lack of interest in memorials, there were few memorials to the New Zealand wars in the 19th century. In contrast with what was to happen in other wars, only three monuments were put up during, or immediately after, the wars themselves. This was partly because the idea of honouring the ordinary soldier, as distinct from the heroic general, was new (having emerged in Britain only after the 1853–56 Crimean War); partly because the dead were buried and had gravestones in New Zealand, not overseas; and partly because Pākehā New Zealanders did not want to celebrate the wars – they preferred to forget.

Fanaticism or patriotism?

The text on the Moutoa memorial describes those who fell in a battle against upriver Māori as dying ‘in defence of law and order against fanaticism and barbarism’. This appalled author Mark Twain when he visited Whanganui in 1895. Twain thought that the upriver Māori were also patriots: ‘Patriotism is Patriotism. Calling it Fanaticism cannot degrade it; nothing can degrade it ... But the men were worthy … they fought for their homes, they fought for their country; they bravely fought and bravely fell.’1

New Zealand’s first war memorial was erected in 1865 to the 15 lower-river Māori who had died at Moutoa Island the previous year, defending Whanganui town against advancing upriver Māori. The monument reflected residents’ huge relief that the battle had spared the town. Of the other two memorials erected in the mid-1860s, one was to a traditional military hero, Colonel Marmaduke Nixon, and one was put up by departing British soldiers to their comrades.

Monuments were also put up in the 1860s to honour those killed in the Wairau affray in Marlborough and at the battle of Ōhaeawai in Northland – both a quarter of a century earlier.

During the last three decades of the 19th century, the wars were only memorialised when rot or fire destroyed soldiers’ headboards, leading to complaints from visiting British veterans about the neglect of old soldiers’ graves. So collective memorials were built at Pōkeno, Whanganui and Ōkaihau.

Mistaken identity

When visiting St John’s church in Te Awamutu in 1913, Edith Statham noted a mound where ‘friendly Māori’ were believed to be buried. She ordered a memorial and asked the local minister to write an inscription. Later the minister told Statham that the dead were not ‘friendly’ but ‘enemy’ Māori. It was too late to stop the memorial – and when it arrived, Statham was taken aback to read the inscription: ‘In memory of the Maori heroes who fell in the battles of Hairini and Orakau – 1864’. ‘Heroes’ was going too far for Statham, but the words were already carved in stone. They remain in 2011.

A new memorialising, 1900–1920

In the first two decades of the 20th century over 20 memorials were built. The new interest in creating memorials and the example of the memorials erected to the South African War (1899–1902) were factors. Monuments were erected at Ōrākau (outside Kihikihi) and at Pētane and Ōmarunui in Hawke’s Bay for 50th anniversaries of battles. Some ageing veterans, such as James Livingstone and John Finlay in South Taranaki, wished to remember their colleagues.

Most significantly the build-up of military preparedness before and during the First World War encouraged a view that memorials to the New Zealand wars might remind a younger generation about soldierly service to the Empire. The prime exponent of this view was Edith Statham, secretary of the graves committee of the Victoria League and then the government’s official inspector of old soldiers’ graves. Her efforts resulted in a dozen new memorials at battle sites and cemeteries in the North Island. With the exception of a monument at Te Awamutu (where a mistake was made) and a memorial to Rāwiri Puhirake, the chivalrous hero of Gate Pā, those remembered were soldiers who had fallen fighting for the Crown. Māori who had lost their lives fighting against the Crown were not memorialised.


There were two further bursts of memorialising.

  • In the 1920s the publication of James Cowan’s two-volume history of the wars and the example of the First World War memorials encouraged interest, and a dozen new monuments were put up, especially in Taranaki.
  • In the 1950s and 1960s the establishment of the New Zealand Historic Places Trust (renamed Heritage New Zealand in 2014) and the centenaries of particular battles led to new markers and plaques.


From the 1970s Māori activists began to question the imperial sentiments of some early 20th-century memorials. Both an Auckland memorial and the soldier memorial on Marsland Hill in New Plymouth were damaged. There were also some efforts to recognise the suffering on both sides. A bicultural monument was erected in St Mary’s church in New Plymouth, and in 2002 a joint project between Māori and the Crown led to a new monument to Māori who had died at Katikara in Taranaki.

  1. Mark Twain, Following the equator. New York: American Publishing Co., 1897, pp. 321–322. Back
How to cite this page:

Jock Phillips, 'Memorials and monuments - Memorials to the New Zealand wars', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 22 July 2024)

Story by Jock Phillips, published 20 Jun 2012, updated 26 Mar 2015